Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin, based upon poem by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy
Duration: approx. 12 mins
With: Cecile Arnold, Fritz Schade, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy
Story: A former painter, now a drunken indigent, laments his lost love with a group of fellow drinkers.
Production: For his entire time at Keystone, Charlie Chaplin had been learning his craft while struggling to fit in with the limitations of Mack Sennett’s usual mode of production. Many of the shorts to this point displayed some evidence of Chaplin’s ambition, which would later be realised in films such as The Kid (1921), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). With The Face on the Bar Room Floor, Chaplin appears to have thrown caution to the wind and simply made a movie for himself, almost irrespective of the needs of Keystone.
The Face on the Bar Room Floor features Chaplin’s first substantial use of flashback (also used briefly in Caught in a Cabaret) as his film tells the tale of the downfall of an artist thwarted in love within the accepted structure of a Keystone knock-about in which the climax is always a big ruckus—Chaplin was at least willing to humour his employer that far. Flashbacks would re-occur in Shoulder Arms (1918) and the much later Limelight (1952).
The unusual source material for the film is an 1887 poem by French-born Hugh Antoine d’Arcy, who was also formerly a juvenile actor and eventually a pioneering executive in American moviemaking as the publicity manager for Lubin Studios (he’d married into the Lubin family). Chaplin used several lines directly from the poem for the original intertitles, as suggested by Bioscope’s December 1914 review that claims it was based upon ‘a distinctly humorous poem (cleverly distributed among the sub-titles)…’
Chaplin uses the sentiment of the poem as a jumping off point for his short. Here, beyond any possibility of doubt, his character is presented as a Tramp (described in the intertitle as a ‘vagabond’)—though lacking his usual tie and cane. To prove it, we see the artists life in flashback before he came to his current station in life, providing the background drama to what would otherwise be a simple gathering of lamenting barflies. This structure was the most ambitious attempted by Chaplin to this point, although it is actually lacking much in the way of comedy as Keystone audiences might have recognised it until the very end. This is Chaplin’s first direct attempt to elicit an emotion from his audience other than simple laughter, making it an important movie in his overall development.
Despite the seeming signposts to the future of Chaplin as cinematic artist in this film, biographer David Robinson has little time for it, describing it as ‘technically the least interesting of Chaplin’s films’ being ‘a parody… simply alternating lengthy titles with tableaux in comic illustration of Hugh Antoine d’Arcy’s pathetic and then popular ballad of love betrayed’.
There is some humour in the man that the artist’s great love, Madeline, runs off with being fat and balding, not the usual object of romantic fixation. When Chaplin’s artist gets her note, there are the beginnings perhaps of the filmmaker’s first real attempt at straight acting, reacting to the situation in a somewhat realer way than usual, refusing to play it for easy comedy as might be expected in a Keystone short. Later, in the park when the artist sees the woman now married to the man she ran off with, and with a brood of children following in their wake, there is a moment when he seems caught up in the melancholy of life, seeing this family as rightly his, as an opportunity missed, The moment passes quickly though, as the artist opts to few that missed opportunity as more of a narrow escape. The final section in which the drunken artist attempts to sketch his lost love on the bar room floor in chalk reveals him to be not so much of a pictorial artist but perhaps more of a bullshit artist, conning free drinks from the assorted rubes by his story.
The Face on the Bar Room Floor was released and re-released in various remixed and cut up versions, with WH Productions reissuing the short under the title The Ham Artist and Official Films putting it out under the correct title, yet having moved around the scenes that make up the film into a nonsensical order (such that the portrait of the woman is shown before we see the artist actually painting it!). The BFI/Flicker Alley DVD release is constructed from three separate prints and is the best available effort to reconstitute the short in the manner it probably originally appeared: it certainly has the best quality material (certainly compared with Chaplin’s next release, Recreation).
Slapstick: Very little to speak of here, until the climax. Apart from stepping in or sitting in his own paints and tripping over a polar bear rug, there’s little falling down from the artist in his pre-inebriated days. He does destroy the portrait of the man his paramour has run off with. It’s only when drawing the portrait in the bar room floor that Chaplin’s trademark slapstick kicks in, with a roll, a tumble through some swing doors, and the climatic free-for-all bar room brawl.
Verdict: An unusual effort and a sign of things to come, 3/5
Next: Recreation (13 August 1914)